Aug. 19, 2018
I’m not sure what inspired me, but there were a few semesters during college when I sang with the college choir. It wasn’t a fancy thing; it’s not like there were auditions or evaluations of any kind. Pretty much anybody who wanted to could join a section and give it a try. There were enough competent voices in the choir to drown out the less practiced ones. So, I sang, and I enjoyed the process of starting off pretty much lost and becoming part of a production that ended up sounding fairly good.
Apart from Brahm’s Requiem, which I thought was just beautiful, I don’t remember the pieces that we sang. I do, however, remember that a number of choir members along with a handful of would-be audience members boycotted one particular concert because the piece that we were singing was based on words from the gospel of John. John, with all its many references to “the Jews,” references that you could hardly call complimentary, was seen by many to be anti-Semitic, perhaps even the primary justification for anti-Jewish thinking around the world.
You hear a bit of it today. “The Jews disputed among themselves, saying, “how can this man give us his flesh to eat?” It’s not one particular segment of Jews; it’s not the Pharisees or the scribes who are the bad guys here. It’s definitely “the Jews.”
The thing is, what the Johanine community understood when they read these words together was not at all what the post-Constantine Gentile world heard when they later read these words. Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the whole vast Roman empire. In such a context it would have been pretty easy to think of Jews as the enemies of Christ. It would have been easy to forget Rome’s role in his crucifixion. It would have been easy to forget that Jesus was a Jew.
Those Johanine Christians would never have forgotten that. In fact, they themselves were Jews. They were Jews who found in Christ the hope for which they longed. They were Jews for whom Christ became the very picture of God, whose Spirit gave them a profound sense of unity with their God, the God of their people, and the God of their ancestors.
It’s just that their people didn’t see it that way. The Gospel of John was written for Jewish Christians who found themselves no longer welcome to the table, excluded from the temple, removed from the family they thought of as their own, because of their claims about Jesus. The tension in the Gospel’s references to “the Jews” reflects something much more akin to sibling rivalry and challenging family dynamics than the racism or anti-Semitism that we are aware of today.
Isn’t it interesting how important context is for understanding meaning? Words make the most sense when they are used within communities of understanding, within specific settings and cultures.
As another example, outside the context of a worshiping Christian community Christ’s words in John’s gospel were used to further malign the small band of early Christians. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” “See!” said their alarmed contemporaries, “those Christians are cannibals! It’s in their sacred texts! They eat human flesh. They drink human blood.”
No doubt, the words of Christ likely carried a certain shock value to the Christians of John’s gospel as well. That kind of language, I would think, is a bit jarring for anyone. Beyond the cannibalistic imagery there’s a kind of ruthless immanence to it. “You have to take me in,” Jesus says. “Let me fill your body and your soul. Let my blood flow through your veins.” It’s disturbingly intimate, a little too close for those of us who like our God on the side.
One commentator writes, “Let’s admit it. There is something within us that likes our gods high and lifted up, distant, exclusively in heaven. We so want religion to be something spiritual, rather than something that is uncomfortably incarnational. Yet here we are with God in the flesh before us saying, ‘I’m your bread; feed on me!’ Our hungers are so deep. We are dying of thirst. We are bundles of seemingly insatiable need, rushing here and there in a vain attempt to assuage our emptiness. Our culture is a vast supermarket of desire. Can it be that our bread, our wine, our fulfillment stands before us in the presence of this crucified, resurrected Jew?”
Those Johanine Christians believed so. And so, when they broke bread together and shared wine together, when they celebrated the sacrament together, they understood Christ’s strange words in a way that the outside world wouldn’t. This bread was the presence of a God whom we must ingest, a God who is resurrected within us, a God who brings an eternity of love into our mortal beings. This wine is the life of Christ flowing through our veins; it is God in every ounce of us.
What the Christians discovered and claimed was a God of incarnation, not an abstract concept to be considered at a safe emotional distance, but a God of all eternity made personal and present, a living God at the source of our being asking us to shine through. Will Willimon writes, “God’s truth wants to burrow deep within us, to consume us as we consume him, to flow through our veins, to be digested, to nourish every nook and cranny of our being.”
Have you ever noticed how the flow of our worship service leads us each week ultimately to this point? Whether is the Great Thanksgiving, which I lead on Communion Sundays, or the prayer of Thanksgiving, which we all say together, the place is the same. It’s the place of surrendering ourselves – all that we are and all that we have – to God, allowing God to receive every nook and cranny of our beings, so that with God and in God we might know the kind of life that is abundant.
For those early Christians it was worth the cost of exclusion and rejection, which no doubt was a serious cost. For us too there will be costs, things to sacrifice or perhaps let die. It’s not easy, but that’s why we practice it each and every week, and with the help of one another.
 FOTW, Year B Volume 3, page 337.
 Ibid, page 361.